Without question, a certain percentage of interviewing advice is truly universal and can be applied equally as well to the college graduate on up to the veteran CEO.  Dressing neatly and making strong eye contact are two interviewing success principles that meet this test, as does our recommendation to avoid ordering spaghetti if the interview will be taking place over a meal.

As one drills down to more specific interview categories and situations, however, many “traditional” interview pointers start to break down and a more customized strategy is often required to truly hit a home run and distinguish yourself from your competition.  One of these strategies, for example, relates to candidates interviewing for openings at the executive level or for positions (such as VP of Public Relations or Software Testing Manager) where they will be functioning as the company’s top in-house subject matter expert.  In these situations, a fundamental shift in the power balance of the interview takes place that, in most cases, greatly favors the candidate who is wise enough to take advantage of it.

Simply put, when companies are hiring people at the senior levels, they tend to be actively looking for a fresh answer or solution — as opposed to just “filling a hole” that has already been fully defined.  While they may play a bit of hide-and-seek and pretend they’ve got things all figured out, they secretly hope to stumble across a candidate who offers a compelling new vision of success and clear, confident answers about how the company can accomplish its business objectives.  They want to be challenged intellectually and need to believe they are investing in a portfolio of value, ideas, and expertise that currently can’t be found within their organizational domain.  If this wasn’t the case, and a company truly felt they had all their ducks in a row, they’d be far more likely to simply promote an existing employee to the vacancy or outsource the function to a delivery consultant.

If you’re an executive candidate, therefore, or a subject matter expert in your field, we’d encourage you to approach the interview process more as an expert consultant than as a dyed-in-the-wool job candidate willing to accept the company’s perspectives at face value.  Recognize the unique leverage you have and treat the interview as an opportunity to engage in an intensive problem-solving conversation with the hiring manager.  Ask insightful questions about their needs, the solutions they’re contemplating, and the previous solutions they’ve attempted.  Discuss effective solutions you’ve implemented at each of your past organizations.  Explain your insights on leadership effectiveness and clearly articulate your own battle-tested success philosophy.  And above all, recognize that you’re there to educate the employer and provide them with new ideas and reflections on the challenges they’re facing, not acquiesce meekly to the company’s own internally-biased and myopic view of the situation.

While it may be intimidating to stick to your guns and approach the interview on a peer-to-peer level, constantly remind yourself that you’ve been invited in only because the company leaders don’t believe they already have the in-house answers, solutions, and resources they need.  They’re there because they want to learn from you, a reputed expert in your field, and hear what you have to say.  So take full ownership of your expertise and recognize that while some obligatory posturing may still occur, savvy executives will respect you more in the end if you challenge their thinking, demonstrate a detailed understanding of their core issues, and don’t hold back from giving them “tough love” if they need it.